The Bond Between an Autism Family and a BCBA
March 07, 2023
March 07, 2023
Sometimes, it just seems like we’re in the right place at the right time. Like, for instance, when a happenstance meeting in a grocery store turned into a life-changing moment for a mom and a budding new autism therapist.
Nearly three years ago, Mandy Fernandez was fresh off becoming a Registered Behavior Technician (RBT) at Hopebridge Autism Therapy Centers in Glendale, AZ, doing some shopping after a day at work. While in the checkout line, the cashier noticed the puzzle piece on her company t-shirt and asked her about it. Mandy was excited to share details about her new job and went into recruitment mode in hopes to bring in some new friends, originally thinking the woman was interested in working for Hopebridge. In actuality, the cashier, Melanie, was interested in the details for her daughter, Stella, who is on the autism spectrum.
Neither knew it at the time, but that would be the start of what Melanie calls “the cutest bond” between her daughter and Mandy … and a path of victories for all of them. It was kismet.
On the day they met, Melanie’s family had recently moved from Idaho, where she and her husband, Brad, had Stella in ABA therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy. Until that point, they had yet to find autism services in the Phoenix area and tried to find ways to keep Stella busy in and around their new home—all during Arizona’s record-breaking heat. After learning about Hopebridge, they were drawn to the provider’s 360 Care model, which offers all services in one place*, and scheduled an ABA evaluation for her.
“Leaving Stella’s services behind in Idaho was the most daunting, scary thing for me, knowing that we’d need to rebuild and figure out what we could do for her in this new place. We worked through getting her set up on disability and Medicaid again, and it was all so overwhelming,” said Melanie. “Just seeing Mandy that day was a blessing and a godsend. It took us less than two months to have Stella start therapy, much of that time due to the move and working on insurance.”
Mandy’s introduction to applied behavior analysis (ABA) at Hopebridge had started just a bit earlier than Stella’s, but was still fresh. While in her undergraduate program to become on occupational therapist, she was placed in a fieldwork setting she didn’t connect with and had become discouraged. Someone at her college suggested she look into working in ABA therapy. She had never heard of it before … which surprised her and piqued her interest because her two siblings have autism and are a big part of her life. She applied to Hopebridge and began working as an ABA therapist and RBT soon after.
“When families talk about their concerns, I can let them know I’ve been there. I’m passionate about my siblings’ care and I’m currently my sister’s legal guardian. I think it gives them some form of relief to know that I can relate to many of their home-life situations. I attribute a lot of success to my brother and sister, Matt and Abby. They’ve helped me with my confidence as a new BCBA,” said Mandy.
Though their initial connection in an Albertson’s store is what launched the relationship, it wasn’t until Mandy was already part of Hopebridge’s fellowship program to become a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) that she and Melanie met up again. Mandy had begun her supervision hours as a fellow and started working with Stella under her previous BCBA. That is when Mandy approached Melanie and asked if she knew the girl in the store was her.
“I told her that she changed the course for us! I started crying,” said Melanie. “It takes a lot to care for Stella. She is a unique case with multiple diagnoses, but they have catered to her needs and recognized her potential since day one. I can see the love for her and that’s a huge deal for us.”
Incredibly funny, witty, sassy, intuitive and almost always listening to music, Stella came to Hopebridge with a big personality, as well as with a number of challenges she has worked to overcome. In addition to autism spectrum disorder (ASD), she has a genetic disorder that is quite rare, which means that personalized care was even more important.
“Special and unique sums her up perfectly. She has her little –isms that are fun. She’s super cute in the way that she does things—most of the time. She also has her moments when it’s hard,” said Brad. “She’s so different that people tell us, ‘It must be so hard having her,’ but it’s all normal to us. I don’t think anything of it. Stella is who she is. We call her our forever baby.”
When she started, Stella struggled with aggressive behaviors, sometimes leaving her mom with scratches on her arms. It took time and a lot of work, but they made progress. Since gaining more communication and tolerance skills at Hopebridge, she is now able to self-regulate her emotions and feelings and deescalate during frustrating moments.
“Her temperament has calmed down a lot. She is a lot more patient with us. It was hard and a little bit dangerous to be around her before. She still pulls my beard, but that’s my own fault for having one! It’s part of the job,” her dad said through smiles as he talked about her progress.
“Her goals were really centered on general tolerance when she started, but as we got to know her and worked through her assessments, we uncovered her love for learning,” said Mandy, who noted they used extensive functional communication training and mand training with Stella, and are currently implementing the PEAK assessment within her program of care.
When Stella was younger, her parents were told she would only be able to use one- to three-word phrases her entire life. Since then, she has stretched her verbal skills quite a bit, being able to label just about anything, including numbers, colors and shapes. She can say longer phrases like, “I want the blue iPad,” and was approved for an AAC device she can use when she has a difficult time expressing her words.
“She learned how to say ‘no,’ which was a big deal for us. We could find out what she wanted by process of elimination. ‘Is it this? This?’ When she didn’t respond with ‘no’ anymore, we knew what she wanted. Screaming ‘no’ has now evolved into calmly saying, ‘no, thank you,’” said Brad.
Stella is also full of one-liners and enjoys scripting by working “Super Why” catch phrases into conversation, such as “Hi, Super Reader Mandy.”
“Every time I’m in a consult with her, I’m taken away with the words she uses. If she gets stuck, she’ll slow herself down and focus on chaining the words together. It’s awesome to see her comprehending and getting it right,” said Mandy. “I cried the other day when she stopped me and independently said, ‘Hi, Mandy,’ without any prompting.”
It’s a big deal for her to greet people, as her mom tells us that she did not used to connect with others, including her parents. Now she knows her family members’ names and says, “Mommy!” and runs to Melanie with open arms—who serves it right back. She still likes to play on her own, but now she also likes to interact with her parents and is getting better at engaging with her 8-year-old brother, Wilson, who often attends family guidance sessions with them at Hopebridge. She plays peek-a-boo and tells her father, “Round,” when she wants him to spin her.
“It was tough for a long time. Now it feels so sweet to be recognized, whereas before it seemed like she couldn’t care less when others were around. We feel a little more connected to her,” said Melanie. “Hopebridge helped her open up to people in general. She bonds so well with everyone in the center, but gets excited about people outside of Hopebridge.”
As Melanie’s mom told us, their first meeting has come full circle. Mandy is now a BCBA, and Stella is getting ready to transition to a classroom.
“From Stella’s therapy referral while I was an RBT, to preparing her for school now that I’m a BCBA, we’ve grown together. Seeing her growth has taught me to never-ever doubt these kids. I love her so much,” said Mandy, through happy tears.
Her mom echoes these sentiments.
“I truly believe in the power of ABA. I get where some misconceptions come from, but I also want to serve as a voice to help people understand that it’s been a great thing in our lives and we’ve seen the huge effects it’s had on Stella. Hopebridge has been a great fit for her,” said Melanie. “The goals they are setting are within her realm, but also push her to her potential.”
Mandy believes it’s important to recognize the little moments that lead to a larger impact. She loves offering pep talks, not only to kids like Stella, but also to serve as a hype man for her team by reminding them that even if it does not seem like they are completing a big task, one table-time session or one transition to the play room makes a stamp on a child’s future.
“When Stella started, the behaviors and difficulties she worked through could also be tough or intimidating for some therapists, but she and our team stuck in there and did such a phenomenal job. They showed me that whether it happens at a slow rate or a fast rate, progress is possible. It gives me the extra confidence when working with new kiddos, as well as when facing difficult moments in my own life. She’s inspired me with her progress in so many ways.”
Witnessing the bond between this family and their behavior analyst is so motivating. This is why we do what we do! If you are looking for similar outcomes – either to help your child reach new opportunities and independence, or to explore your own career path – reach out to us. Caregivers should contact us here to schedule autism testing or an ABA evaluation. Those hoping to become future team members should apply to one of our open positions here.
*Informed consent was obtained from the participants in this article. This information should not be captured and reused without express permission from Hopebridge, LLC.